China has repatriated some 50 North Korean escapees, including air force pilots and others who could face severe penalties, including the death penalty, sources on the side told RFA. Chinese border.
The first such repatriations since Beijing and Pyongyang closed their borders in January 2020 at the start of the pandemic took place on July 14 in the northwest border town of Sinuiju, across the river border. Yalu from Dandong in China, a source in the city told RFA.
Most of the North Korean escapees aim to reach South Korea, but arrivals in the South are at an all-time low due to the pandemic. Not only is it difficult for North Koreans to cross China, once there, traveling to a third country has also become more difficult.
The inability to find a way out of China has resulted in North Korean escapees being stranded in a country that regularly repatriates them to North Korea. The group of escapees returned to North Korea last week awaited their fate in a prison about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Shenyang, some for two years.
“The customs office in Dandong was opened just for today and they returned about 50 North Korean escapees to North Korea on two buses,” the source, a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, said last week. .
“This morning, dozens of police lined up in front of the customs office to block public access and ensure that no one was filming the repatriation,” the source said.
“There are 50 men and women in total, including North Korean soldiers and pilots who served in the air force. Among them is also a woman in her thirties who made a lot of money in Hebei Province, ”the source said.
“She was said to be very rich, but her neighbors denounced her,” the source said.
Chinese spectators who witnessed the repatriation expressed sympathy for the returning escapees, according to another Chinese citizen of Korean descent in Dandong.
“They said ‘If they go, they will die. It is horrible that after fleeing their country to survive, they are executed young. ‘ Witnesses have even shown hostility towards the police, who essentially send them to die, ”said the second source.
The temporary opening to receive the group of escapees came after Pyongyang refused several requests from Beijing to resume repatriations.
“Their repatriation to North Korea has been delayed for a year or two. The escapees were held in a Shenyang prison and sent back together as a single group at that time, ”the first source said.
The second source said that “Chinese authorities have planned to repatriate the escapees several times since April, but have been unable to do so as North Korea has refused to accept them, citing coronavirus quarantine measures “.
There are many more North Korean escapees in the Shenyang area, and the 50 who were not the only ones held by the Chinese, according to the first source.
“I understand that there are even more North Korean escapees at Shenyang Prison,” Dandong’s primary source said.
“There are also women who escaped from North Korea and lived in quiet hiding with Chinese husbands. They are usually released immediately, but those who have conflicts with local residents or other issues are arrested and jailed, ”the source added.
Among the 50 returned via Sinuiju are “North Koreans who escaped after the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” the second source said.
“It will therefore be difficult for them to avoid severe sanctions upon their return to North Korea,” the second source said.
“The group of escapees includes a woman who married a Chinese man, gave birth to her son and led a well-off life,” the second source said.
“This is the second time that this woman, whose son is now 12, has been repatriated. Because her life is in danger, her Chinese husband offered a big bribe to save his wife, but she was fired anyway, ”the second source said.
North Korean authorities also sent 90 long-term residents of Chinese nationality to cross the border with China in empty buses sent to receive North Korean escapees, the first source said. Chinese citizens who have lived in North Korea for generations are allowed to travel relatively freely in China.
During a press briefing on Monday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it could not confirm reports of the forced repatriation.
“The government has made various efforts to protect and support North Korean deserters abroad. However, there is nothing the ministry can confirm regarding the matter, ”said Lee Jong Joo, a spokesperson for the ministry.
Beijing says it must return North Koreans found illegally on Chinese territory because it is bound by two agreements it signed with Pyongyang, the 1960 Reciprocal Extradition Treaty for Criminals Escaped from the PRC-DPRK and the Protocol of mutual cooperation of 1986 for the work of maintaining national security and social order and border areas.
Rights groups say, however, that the forced repatriation violates China’s responsibility to protect escapees under the Refugee Convention.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have made it to South Korea in recent decades, but the number of escapees entering South Korea has sharply declined from 1,047 in 2019 to just 229 in 2020 due to of the coronavirus pandemic, according to statistics from the Unification Ministry. .
The ministry said on Friday that in the second quarter of 2021, only two escapees entered South Korea, the lowest on record since it began compiling quarterly data in 2003.
In the first quarter of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, 135 escapees reached South Korea, but only 12 arrived in the second quarter. Quarterly totals rose to 48, then declined to 34, then to 31 over the next three quarters before dropping to just two from April to June of this year.
Cheong Gwang-il, chairman of NoChain, a South Korean-based human rights group, told RFA that the closure of the Sino-Korean border, as well as increased border security in South Asia -East has resulted in less activity among brokers helping North Koreans to take the China-Southeast Asia route to escape South Korea.
Reported by Jieun Kim for the RFA Korean service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.